I’ll Be Your Mirror:  Did the Rabbis of the Talmud Fail to see Eretz Yisrael?

byRabbi Marcus Mordecai Schwartz Copyright 2016

In a recent study published in the Hebrew Union College annual, I made a first assessment of a unique group of traveling Rabbis in the Talmud. These Rabbis were called the Nahotei (“those who go down”). The Nahotei were sages who traveled from Babylonia to Palestine and returned to Babylonia with reports of Palestinian rabbinic traditions. This activity took place mostly in the fourth century CE. I undertook the study when I discovered that no contemporary scholars had made such a large-scale examination of these traveling rabbis. Nineteenth-century scholars of the Talmud had imagined the Nahotei bringing large numbers of new Tannaitic and Amoraic traditions to Babylonia. But my study showed that, at least as depicted in b. Seder Mo’ed, these Rabbis did little more than clarify, modify or reassign the authorship of traditions already known in Babylonia prior to their reports.

In addition to analytical work establishing the quantitative provenance of nahotian traditions, I also tried to find a helpful heuristic lens to explain why these rabbis would undertake such a demanding (and dangerous) set of journeys, just to recapitulate information that was mostly already known in Rabbinic Babylonia. So I employed methods developed in the study of travel writing to offer insight into the possible motivations of this group. I found the concept of “expectation-conforming tropes”—a concept that runs through the heart of many recent studies of travel writing—to be very helpful in making sense of this rabbinic behavior. In essence, the notion is that travelers tend to report their journeys to those back at home in accordance with their readers’ or listeners’ preconceived expectations. While travelers’ lived experiences of their journey often go beyond the scope of their original imaginings, their reports tend to narrow the experience, sanding off any rough edges that would escape the understanding of those at home, and perhaps even that of the travelers themselves. A general feature of travel literature is that the reporter often expresses his or her experience in commonly employed and repetitive tropes.[1] These tropes, in turn, conform to the home audience’s expectations. The travel report can be constrained to quite a small array of these possible tropes. Expectation-conforming tropes were certainly also at play in late-antique travel reports, as a number of scholars have shown.[2]

Using this insight, I tried to place Nahotian activity in the context of general fourth-century religious culture. In the West, the fourth century saw Christians visiting Egypt, Palestine and Syria. In the East, Zoroastrians were visiting sacred fires in Pars, Azerbaijan and Media. Fourth century pilgrimage had a distinctly social nature in both places and in both faiths. I presented evidence from both these communities that described pilgrimage as an opportunity to meet and talk with living people. People who had been unsettled by the rapidly changing religious and political scene of the day could imagine that a stable continuity with the past still existed in Egypt or Palestine, or Pars or Media when they encountered the “sacred” individuals living in those lands.

Typically, no novel experience was looked for by the pilgrims. Repeated confirmation of pre-existing faith was the point of the journey. These were travels to reconfirm the already known and, unsurprisingly, new knowledge was rarely gained. In this context, the fact that the Nahotei report or clarify Palestinian traditions to Babylonian Amoraim that are largely already known to the Babylonians, if in a slightly different form, is highly suggestive. I understand the Nahotei to be rabbinic pilgrims of the fourth century. The Nahotei probably traveled to Eretz Israel and asked questions about traditions that had previously gained popularity in rabbinic circles in Babylonia. The Nahotian journeys and reports seem to have played a social role in the ongoing circles of Babylonian Torah study, similar to the role pilgrimage played in the two major societies at large.

Clearly, my conclusions stand in marked contrast to long established opinion. For example, the great nineteenth century historian of Rabbinics, Isaac Halevy (1847–1914), theorized that the Nahotei were responsible for importing most of the Palestinan traditions in the Bavli. Halevy’s description of the Nahotei as itinerant scholars/traveling merchants was to influence almost all depictions of the group for the next hundred years. While I agree that they did indeed import some number of Palestinian rabbinic materials to Babylonia, my study shows that reports of the Nahotei in b. Seder Mo’ed are, for the most part, limited to elucidations of rabbinic traditions previously in circulation in Babylonia. Fully ninety-three of the 103 reports we find in b. Seder Mo’ed modify Palestinian traditions previously known to Babylonian sages, or comment upon them.

Because this feature masks from our view any informal reports that they may have made, it’s difficult to determine the full impact of their activity in bringing sources and traditions to Babylonia from Palestine. However, the constraint that my study shows they imposed on the content of their formal reports disqualifies their candidacy as the major vector for the importation of novel Palestinian rabbinic texts in fourth-century Babylonia. At most, they may have brought small-scale redacted materials.

I’m happy now to present a particularly piquant example of this phenomenon drawn from my recently published study. This is an example I used to portray the most common behavior the Nahotei exhibit: the clarification of a tradition already known in Babylonia prior to their report. This example also has relevance to the time of year as I write this: it is the concluding unit of the fairly complex final sugya of the fourth chapter of b. Rosh Hashanah.[3] We shall see in this example, that though the Nahotei seem, for the most part, constrained to report modifications or clarifications of traditions already known in Babylonia, their coeval Babylonian colleagues are clearly not constrained in the same ways. In this passage, other Babylonian Amoraim seem free to report any traditions they like, even entirely new ones.

Because of the textual complexity of the example, I will present an excerpt of the relevant materials from the sugya in translation, with an added exposition. As part of my exposition, I have added comments and background information to aid the reader [italicized in brackets].[4] For the reader’s convenience, I have provided a translation of m. Rosh Hashanah 4:9 preceding the sugya, followed by a brief thematic sketch. After the translation and commentary of the Bavli passage, the reader will find a brief attempt to summarize the thematic and structural contours of the example.

  1. Rosh Hashanah 4:9

…Just as the congregation’s agent is obligated [to recite the statutory prayer[5]aloud on behalf of the community], so is each individual [Jew] obligated [to recite the prayer silently first, each on his or her own behalf].

Rabban Gamaliel[6] says, “The congregation’s agent fulfills the community’s obligation.” [Therefore, individuals need not recite a personal statutory prayer in addition to the communal one recited by the congregation’s agent.]

The Mishnah presents a disagreement between Rabban Gamaliel and the anonymous majority view. That view posits that, despite the public recitation of the statutory prayer by the congregation’s agent, the individual worshiper is nonetheless required to make a private, individual recitation of the prayer. To understand Rabban Gamaliel’s opposing view we may draw an analogy to the sacrificial cult. Just as the priests in the Temple carried out the major rituals of the service, spilling the blood on the walls of the altar and burning the innards and limbs of the victim without the aid of the penitent bringer of the sacrifice, so the congregation’s agent performs the service of the heart on behalf of the individual worshiper. In Rabban Gamaliel’s view, the ritual performed by the congregation’s agent dispenses the statutory obligation of each and every individual worshiper. That much is clear. What remains unclear from the Mishnah is the full extent of Rabban Gamaliel’s dispensation. Must the individual worshiper actually hear the recitation of the congregation’s agent? Or, alternatively, may the performance of the ritual in the synagogue quorum settle the matter for the entire community, both for those present in attendance and for those not present in attendance? It is this ambiguity that the Bavli attempts to address in the passage excerpted below:

  1. Rosh Hashanah 35a:23‒35a:27
  2.       [In an attempt to clarify the extent of Rabban Gamaliel’s ruling,] Rav Aha bar Avirah said, “Rabbi Shimon Hasida said, ‘Rabban Gamaliel would exempt even [those not in the synagogue from the private recitation of the statutory prayer, such as] the people [working] in the fields.” [That is to say, the communal recitation of the statutory prayers would fulfill the obligations of rural Jews who are not in the synagogue. Rabban Gamaliel apparently takes the conduct of the communal ritual of worship by the prayer quorum in the synagogue to be of primary importance, even overriding the need for the attendance of the full community at large.]
  3.      [The Talmud makes explicit the full implications of Rabban Gamaliel’s ruling:] Needless to say, [he would also exempt from the private recitation of the statutory prayer even] those standing here [in town,[7] but not in attendance in the synagogue. In other words, the communal recitation of the statutory prayers would fulfill the obligations of all Jews at all times, and in all places].
  4.      [An objection to 2.] On the contrary! Those [in the field] are forced [to miss the daily prayer quorum due to their heavy agricultural work load. Therefore, Rabban Gamaliel enables them to fulfill their obligatory worship in absentia through the agency of the communal prayers recited in town. However,] those [in town] are not forced [to miss the daily prayer quorum and do not receive the same Gamalian dispensation]
  5.      [A support for 3.] This is as Abba bar Binyamin bar Hiyya taught [in a baraita], the people that are behind the Kohanim [during the ritual of the priestly blessing] are not included in the blessing [since they could easily move to be in front of the Kohanim. The same is true of the townsfolk in 2. They could come to synagogue, but choose not to. Since they have elected not to come to the synagogue, they receive no dispensation.]
  6.      When Rabbin came [from Palestine] he said [in the name of] Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi, “Rabbi Shimon Hasida said: Rabban Gamaliel did not exempt any[of those not in the synagogue from the private recitation of the statutory prayer] except the people [working] in the fields.”
  7.   What is the reason [for the difference between them and others]? Because they are forced [to miss the daily prayer quorum due to their heavy agricultural work load. However, those] in town are not.

At unit 1, Rav Aha bar Avirah’s statement attempts to resolve the ambiguity present in Rabban Gamaliel’s position in m. Rosh Hashanah 4:9. Units 2‒4 present a later anonymous editorial expansion of the sugya. Unit 2 consists of a challenge in the form of a proposed reductio ad absurdum of Rabban Gamaliel’s opinion, introduced only to be defeated at 3‒4. Unit 3 soundly rejects the proposition of unit 2. The support adduced at unit 4 is imported from its original location in b. Sotah 38b. Unit 5 is Rabbin’s report, which I will fully explicate in the next paragraph. Unit 6 is an elucidatory comment explaining the reasoning behind Rabbin’s report.

When we remove the later materials at units 2‒4 and 6, it is clear that the core of the passage is the statement of Rav Aha bar Avirah at unit 1 and Rabbin’s report of a similar, clarifying tradition at unit 5. They read in coherent relationship with each other when placed side by side:

Rav Aha bar Avirah said, “Rabbi Shimon Hasida said, ‘Rabban Gamaliel would exempt even the people in the fields.’” When Rabbin came he said [in the name of] Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi, “Rabbi Shimon Hasida said: Rabban Gamaliel only exempted the people in the fields.”

Rabbin’s report clarifies the words of Shimon Hasida first presented by Rav Aha bar Avirah. Rav Aha bar Avirah is a Babylonian reporting the Palestinian Shimon Hasida’s understanding of Rabban Gamaliel’s words. But an ambiguity remains in Shimon Hasida’s words: does Rabban Gamaliel exempt only those in the fields from synagogue attendance or does his dispensation also extend to all Jews at all times?

Rabbin’s report of the Palestinian Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi’s statement clarifies this. According to Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi, Shimon Hasida understands that Rabban Gamaliel’s dispensation only extends to the rural Jews unable to attend the synagogue in town. Rabbin’s report has a dual clarifying effect. It clarifies both the ambiguity in Rav Aha bar Avirah’s statement and, in turn, brings clarity to the ambiguity in m. Rosh Hashanah 4:9– it clarifies the full extent of Rabban Gamaliel’s dispensation.

I should point out, parenthetically, the reader may notice the possibility that Rabbin may have been presenting an alternate version of Rabbi Shimon Hasida’s tradition without reference to Rav Aha bar Avirah. I am willing to admit that this may have been the original case. This possibility really has no relevance for my study, however. In the context of the sugya the two traditions are juxtaposed and, therefore, Rabbin’s tradition clarifies Rav Aha bar Avirah, even at the core redactional level. The Bavli, already in an early period, depicts Rabbin’s tradition as a clarification. That is the important point.

Having seen an example of the behavior, I can now move on to the point of my argument that holds perhaps the greatest relevance for us as diaspora Jews today. Taking things to their inevitable conclusion, I argued that Nahotian reports played a small but significant role in forming later Babylonian attitudes towards Palestinian rabbis and their learning. I argued that the reports of the Nahotei helped shape an image that some Babylonian rabbis held of Palestinian rabbis and their learning as stalwart, if unimaginative, preservers of tradition. My conclusions were that this beginning was limited and tentative. However, over time, the Nahotian reports of Palestinian rabbis, showing these sages doing little more than parroting the past, may have grown in the imagination of the Babylonians. We find the first Babylonian presentations of the image of the plodding, Palestinian rabbi slavishly following the dictates of the past the in the fourth century. That this correlates with the rise of the Nahotian reports is too suggestive to ignore. While this stereotype would find its moment of greatest significance in the ninth century anti-Palestinian polemics of the Babylonian geonim, I argued that it may have both fed on the Nahotian reports and fueled them as well. Of course the relevance of the canard of the unthinking rabbinic behaviorist is always felt in Jewish religious circles, even down to our time. It has long been a trope that rabbis use in inter-rabbinic polemics– and it continues to this day.

We should ask ourselves what tropes we use to place others on pedestals and to knock them down. When we travel and speak to others, whether in modern Israel, or simply out of our daily zone of comfort, do we really see and hear our interlocutors? Or do we filter our experience through commonly employed and repetitive tropes? Do we see the other person, or is our mind a mirror, simply reflecting a script that we expect will play itself out?

See further:   Rabbi Marcus Mordecai Schwartz, “As They Journeyed from the East: The Nahotei of the Fourth Century and the Construction of the Rabbinic Diaspora”, Hebrew Union College Annual 86 (2015), pp. 63-99

[1] For three studies introducing this notion of tropes in travel writing and that point to the ways these tropes can function, see David Spurr, The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing and Imperial Administration (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993); Sara Mills, Discourses of Difference: An Analysis of Women’s Travel Writing and Colonialism (London: Routledge, 1993 [Reprint]); and, Terry Caesar, Forgiving the Boundaries: Home as Abroad in American Travel Writing (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995) 35‒41, 71‒82, 138.

[2] Mary Baine Campbell, The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400–1600 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991) 32, 179, 249‒52. Maria Pretzler, Pausanias: Travel Writing in Ancient Greece (London: Duckworth, 2007) 44‒56.

[3] b. Rosh Hashanah 35a.

[4] This translation of our passage from the Yemenite manuscript JTS 108 EMC 319 is my own. On the choice of this manuscript, see David Golinkin, “Pereq Yom Tov shel Rosh ha-Shanah ba-Bavli: Mahadurah Mada’it im Perush.”  PhD diss., Jewish Theological Seminary, 1988, 5‒7, 12‒20.

[5] In this context, the prayer in question is the mishnaic “tefillah, consisting of nineteen blessings on a weekday and seven on most Shabbat and festival days.

[6]Mss. Munich 95 and Vatican 134 both read “Shimon b. Gamaliel.” However, none of the Mishnah manuscripts do so.

[7] This can only refer to those in town, not those in the synagogue. This is clear from step 3 below. See also Rashi, ad locum